India Cafe, Komala Curry House
Posted 13 April 2004 - 03:59 AM
2851-1 Kihei Place
Honolulu, HI 96818
In many ways, it's hard to categorize the food served at India Cafe. Despite its rather generic-sounding name, the Cafe's offerings are very unusual, perhaps unique, within the U.S. context. Not only does it specialize in South Indian food, instead of the more common Mughlai / Punjabi synthesis, but its version of South Indian food is itself quite distinct, being a manifestation of the natural fusion cuisine that has risen amongst the Indian, primarily Tamil, immigrant community in Malaysia.
It's been open for about two years by now, and over that time, despite its unusual cuisine and a somewhat pared-down menu, India Cafe has developed into what IMHO may be the best Indian restaurant in the state of Hawai`i. Indeed, many of the strengths of the restaurant are a direct outcome of its decision to stick to the foods of its community, rather than bending over to adapt recipes in what may seem like a completely foreign environment. The fact that they seem to be making it work commerically is a testament in part to the adaptability and openness of the Honolulu palate, but also the familiarity of some of the ingredients (rice, coconut), if not the techniques used to prepare them.
While the recipes seem to me largely unmodified for local tastes, India Cafe does not attempt to present a large cross-section of Indo-Malaysian cuisine, but specialize in a focused part of it. In essence, it would be fair to say the much of the menu revolves around homestyle presentation of jasmine rice, nasi lemak, dosa, and/or roti pratha (paratha), surrounded or filled with curries, stir-fried vegetables, and / or sambhar. There is no fish head staring out at you from a banana leaf. No banana leaf either, for that matter, just very nice, functional rectangular ceramic platters.
I especially recommend the vegetarian versions of the dosa, roti pratha, or nasi lemak plates, which range from $5.50 to $7.50 for lunch, and slightly more for dinner. Each comes with three different vegetarian dishes, which will be discussed soon enough!
Nasi lemak is long grain rice cooked with coconut milk and flavored with pandanus leaf. In Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, nasi lemak originated as a nonya (assimilated Sino-Malay) specialty, and will typically be served surrounded by salty accompaniments such as ikan bilis (spiced anchovy), otak-otak (coconut fish paste), or fried chicken, plus sambal (chili relish). The India Cafe vegetarian version is completely different:
Here, a large pile of mildly flavored coconut rice is surround by the following: First (from left to right) is something simply called "cauliflower - stir-fried w/onions, red bell peppers & curry leaves". Besides being yellow with turmeric, the cauliflower dish has a noticeable tarka (spice oil infusion) of not only curry leaf but also black mustard, cumin, and some kind of whole dahl. Second is again prosaically named - "spicy eggplant". This has quite a kick, plus a mild sourness in the sauce (presumably tamarind?), plus a similar tarka to the cauliflower. The final accompaniment, "tofu sambal", is made from deep-fried firm tofu which has then been stir-fried with plenty of garlic and chilis. Each of the dishes offers up a different sort of textured spiciness, which you then offset by shoveling huge amounts of the nasi lemak into your mouth. What can I say - an excellent experience overall, but paradise for the inveterate rice eater. There is also a non-veg version of the nasi lemak, which I haven't tried, which allows you to pick two of the following: lamb masala, curried chicken, or spicy shrimp.
The dosa plates are available in bewildering, and somewhat unsystematic, variety. At lunch, you can choose from the "one plain dosai" (sic - isn't "dosai" plural?), "two plain dosai", "one sweet scrambled egg dosai", or "one garlic onion dosai" plates. At dinner, however, only the "two sweet scrambled egg dosai" or "two garlic onion dosai" plates are available - not a plain dosa in sight! Every dosai plate comes with coconut chutney and a split pea sambhar, which has within in an interesting mixture of vegetables which again shows some of the Far Eastern influence - carrots, onions, daikon (icicle radish), and long beans. For the vegetarian dosai, you can choose from three from six different accompaniments, of which three are the same as those which accompany the vegetarian nasi lemak.
Since we were already having the nasi lemak, and it was lunchtime, we asked for the other three vegetable preparations to accompany two plain dosai. From left to right: "Curried potatoes" seems to be the familiar masala potato "puttu" that you get inside a masala dosa, though a bit saucier than the norm. "Mixed vegetable masala" is also semi-wet, consisting of carrots, green beans, and yet more potato in a coconut-accented sauce. Finally, there is a "cabbage kari", cooked in rich coconut milk and mildly spiced. All excellent stuffings for your dosai. BTW, it was the waiter who balanced the sambhar precariously on top of the dosai - this was not my attempt at a dramatic photo composition.
The dosai themselves seem to be made out a conventional rice or combination rice / urad dal. There's a definite tang to the them, indicating natural leavening through fermentation, and the chef(s) at India Cafe do a wonderful job of cooking them to utter crispness. The ridged undersides of each dosa attest both the fermentation and the crispness of the final procuct:
Liquid accompaniments to the meal include Malaysian style "teh tarek" (tea tossed with condensed milk), as well as "kopi tarek" and watermelon juice.
If you want to just enjoy a solitary cup of tea or coffee and catch up on your Bollywood reading, India Cafe kindly offers you full range of publications for your viewing pleasure.
The Cafe is located in a tiny strip mall on Kihei St., off of Kapahulu Ave. It's really impossible to see from Kapahulu, though they have put up a banner on the fence facing the street. Just remember that it is in the same complex as Mr. Ojisan and is across Kapahulu from K.C. Drive-In. I hope they can continue to stay in business and grow - Hawai`i could certainly use more Indian and Southeast Asian restaurants, not to mention Indian-Southeast Asian restaurants!
Posted 16 April 2004 - 02:08 PM
Posted 16 April 2004 - 06:18 PM
Posted 20 April 2004 - 03:04 AM
Posted 20 April 2004 - 02:23 PM
Perhaps they use thalis for dinner and platters for lunch? BTW, I took a second look at the the platters and noticed that they're patterned to look like a strip of banana leaf!
Posted 05 November 2004 - 11:47 AM
700 Bishop St. (Amfac Center) and
1111 Bishop St.
Honolulu, HI 96813
Honolulu doesn't enjoy a plethora of South Indian places, but ones that it has, while modest, are all fairly good.
The Komala Curry House has two small locations around downtown, both inside of larger buildings. Unlike India Café, the Komala Curry House is not Malaysian-inspired "restaurant food", but rather presents a representative sample of Tamil home cooking from the various communities of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), as well as a few Northern dishes and "local-style" adaptations. This means not so much idli and dosai, but a phethora of curries, dahls, poriyals, and rice dishes, all doled out cafeteria-style for hungry downtown salarypeople.
The exact rundown of food on the steam trays varies from day to day, depending on the inclinations of the owner. One thing that is almost always there is their lemon rice, which is the standard starch item that you get with your "regular" (one non-veg and one veg) and "mini" (one veg or non-veg) plates. And as my Tamil-raised-in-Mumbai-suffering-in-Honolulu friend Raja points out, it is real lemon rice, not just a yellow-colored pilaf.
You will always see trays with non-descript titles such as "Lamb Curry" and "Chicken Curry". I don't know if the dishes have more specific names, and nothing is distinctively Southern about the recipes, but at any rate while they are well-made. They also serve a "Chicken Korma" which looks like it may have some coconut milk in it (though usually the Southern versions are spelled "kurma"), but I haven't tried it yet.
One distinctive southern dish that often shows up on the trays is Fish Kozhambu. Kozhambu is a preparation from central Tamil Nadu with a sauce containing garlic, fennel, fenugreek, and curry leaves, along with sometimes pounded coconut. Here it is in a "regular" plate with some lemon rice and a spinach dahl - the latter which seems more Punjabi than Tamil but what do I know.
Perhaps their trademark local-style adaptation is their "spicy tofu", a stir-fry that features, as advertised, a sauce containing a large amount of chiles, complemented by garlic, ginger, and (I'm guessing wildly here) some cumin and curry leaves. Here it is on a "regular" of it along with the "lamb curry" and lemon rice.
Komala also occasionally has samosas and / or paratha. It also sells a small variety of packaged items such as Patak's marinades and chutneys, various forms of packaged chaat (savory snacks), and an interesting "Macho Masala" Nissin Top Ramen that is marketed only in India. I bought a packet, but I'm kind of afraid to try it.
Posted 06 November 2004 - 06:00 AM
So what did you think of the food at Komala? I used to go to the one in the Education America Building, but over the last couple of years, I've noticed that the food is not as good as it used to be. I haven't been there in a while as I've heard some not so good things about the place.
On the other hand, I have been to India Cafe about 10 or so times in the last year, and although I don't care for the way they prepare their nasi lemak, the lamb curry and tofu sambal are very nice.
Posted 07 November 2004 - 04:11 PM
Also like the way that India Cafe prepare their nasi lemak, but it could be a matter of taste. What is it that you don't like about it?
BTW, here is the picture of the Macho Masala Top Ramen I was talking about. Does anyone know what you would serve with it?
Posted 09 November 2004 - 01:47 AM
I am looking forward to hitting a lot of your recommended sites when I visit Honolulu for 2 weeks in December.
Posted 09 November 2004 - 04:19 AM
I guess I didn't really care for the nasi lemak at India Cafe because there wasn't much flavor to it...either that, or it was just very mild. I'm more used to the Malaysian style of preparation which is with coconut cream and pandan leaves.
BTW....a friend of mine got me a couple packages of the same instant noodle. I don't eat instant noodles so I don't know what to do with them either.
Posted 10 November 2004 - 01:08 AM
Reid - I'm not sure if I got a different kind of batch than you, but the Nasi Lemak that I ate there had a very strong coconut taste albeit not that much pandan (which at least to me is probably a good thing for a savory dish). The owners of India Cafe are from Malaysia originally, of Tamil extraction.
Interesting that you got the same kind of noodles! I think I'm going to have it with Spam because Spam goes with everything.